How to teach Empathy


I have a friend who is the mother of seven children, yes, seven children!  Very unusual in this day and age.  I have spent time with her kids and noticed that they are very insightful, thoughtful, empathetic, generous, kind, polite, respectful individuals.  I am a teacher, so I have also spent quite a bit of time with ‘mainstream kids’.   My friend’’s children stand out because of their behaviour.  Sure I’’ve met mainstream kids who possessed all the same qualities.  The part that stood out for me was that ALL her kids possessed these qualities.  I figured this must be a result of a parenting style and not a natural part of some child’’s personality.

After the birth of my first child and during the second year of her life,  I started to really think about how one teaches qualities like empathy, generosity, respectfulness, and thoughtfulness. I remember asking my friend how she managed to instill these qualities in all her children.

The sentence that really resonated with me was, ‘I stop and take the time to have the conversation when we’’re in the moment’.   That was a huge ‘‘ah ha’’ moment for me.  Of course we couldn’’t teach empathy like we teach science in school.  Actually, one year at the school where I was teaching, they implemented a “Feelings” Program for students in grades five and six.  Once a week, I led my class down the hall to the library where an outside professional taught lessons on traits such as, cooperation and empathy.  Each week they would talk about a new trait.  They did role plays and then had to try to implement that characteristic into their behaviour for the week outside school.  My students viewed it as a joke and it seemed like a good idea, but in reality, it didn’t work.  It was very artificial and in no way did the children’s real life behaviour change at all, on the playground or in the classroom.

Maybe they were too old?  These kids were ten and eleven years old.  A child’’s personality is pretty well formed by the age of seven.  Maybe they need these character building lessons before the age of seven to have a positive influence on their behaviour.  It just so happens that there was another program that was given to me in the past to implement to my five year old senior kindergarten students.

It was a complete package program written as an initiative by an expert from the provincial government to target bullying.  It was to be put into place in Kindergarten classrooms to address the rise of bullying and hopefully curb it before it could begin.  It was geared for a kindergarten child’’s developmental understanding and interests.

There were lots of puppets and short stories.  It was easy to implement because I only had to read the straightforward instructions for each lesson and photocopy the accompanying activities.  It was a joke.  The kids were not interested, couldn’t relate to it and it didn’t change their behaviour at all.  Again, the program looked and sounded great on paper but didn’’t work in real life.  Maybe it was just these students?  No, I ran the program for three years as part of our health unit and there was no change each year.

So with this past experience mulling around in the back of my head I was very interested in figuring out what my friend meant when she said, ‘I stop and take the time to have the conversation when we are in the moment”.  What exactly did this mean and how would I know when the moment was?  I really wanted to raise a child who was empathetic and respectful but I wasn’t sure what all those moments would look like and I knew ‘lecturing on the topic’  had not produced fantastic results in the past.

She then explained to me that you needed to be present (as in, actually there) when all these little moments happen.  This was easy at the moment because I was at home with my daughter and we spent all day, everyday, with each other but I knew this would not always be the case as she got older.  She said, when an opportunity or event happened (often a conflict or dilemma situation that the child was part of) then she would stop what she was doing and take 5 minutes to sit down and chat with the child about the situation.

Of course, my friend was referring to experiential learning.  Experiential learning is the most powerful type of learning because we feel the concept completely with all our senses as we are immersed in the experience.  The personal experience with all the feelings and emotions that are associated with it make a powerful impression on our understanding and our memory of the situation.   An artificial role play of an opportunity to practice empathy was just that, artificial.   It needed to be the real deal and I needed to be there to support, listen, gently guide and be a role model worthy of their attention.  Most importantly, listen.

As a child gets older it’s beneficial to take time each day to reflect back on events that happened during the day.  Brainstorm ideas of what you could do next time, if the same situation arises.  Share your stories of struggling with similar emotions at their age.  And most importantly, listen.  Building and strengthening the parent-child connection by being a genuine listener is most important.

So many of these situations could easily slip by if I was no’t around to see them happen or if I was in a ‘checklist’ mindset.  I feel like our world is speeding up and there is less and less time to get things done. When I’’m in ‘checklist’ mode, I have tunnel vision and I don’’t see my child’’s behaviour the same way as I do when I’’m stress free.  When I’’m preoccupied and rushed I interpret my child’’s behaviour on how it will affect my ability to get the list done.  I find it difficult to stop what I am doing and sit still and listen to my child’’s situation.  Instructing is easy to do on the run, point out the problem, provide the solution, tell them what to do next time and keep going without breaking stride.

It’’s so much harder to stop and listen.  Really listen without offering a ‘fix-it’ or sharing ‘your’ view.  It’s not about you, your response to the situation will likely be different from your child’’s take on it.

All of these thoughts came up today when I heard a parent in front of me talking about her youngest son learning how to skate.  I would guess the child was about three years old.  The mother was sharing with her friend how much of a hassle it was to bring all his gear down to the arena and get him suited up to teach him to skate. She then implied the shared skating experience didn’’t go well for the two of them.

The mother concluded that next year she was just going to put him in skating lessons.  His two older siblings completed skating lessons at his age and now they can both skate, so lessons were the answer.  This mother’’s friend replied that his child was in lessons every Saturday morning and his child loved the lessons and they worked well.

I wondered, if we spend the weekdays taking our kids to school, and then the weekends taking our kids to lessons, when will we be around to have those empathy conversations?  Is this why kids today are less respectful than in previous generations?  Is this why bullying is pervasive in our schools?  No one has the time when the kids are little to sit down and have the conversations? Maybe most parents missed half of the opportunities anyways because they weren’t physically or emotionally present.

I’’ve decided to spend my Saturday mornings teaching my own child how to skate.  Build the parent/child connection through a shared experience we both enjoy.  Slow down and take the time to listen when a character building situation occurs.  Be a role model I can be proud of.  I might be taking baby steps now, sure I might slip up and fall hard, but soon I’’m sure I’’ll learn how to glide effortlessly through this role as mother.  It’’s one of the most important roles I’’ll ever have.  I feel so lucky to have a little hand to hold along the way.




  1. I found this information to be very interesting. I remember at the age of 5 in kindergarden, being very empathetic toward my peers, if someone fell I wanted to get them a band aid, whereas others would laugh, if a kid was telling a dumb joke that no one though was funny I would fake laugh to make the kid feel better. whereas most of my peers where more self obsorbed and immature. The result, I had a hard time making friends because in a lot of ways I couldn’t relate to them. Yes I pretended I was a fairy princess and enjoyed playing on the swings, but I always felt wise beyond my years. I also have a big family with 4 brothers. My mother has a kind quiet way about her, she NEVER yelled at us kids, she always encouraged us to play nice, share, be respectful, be patient, and ack kind toward EVERYONE! (With the exception to “bad people” trying to harm you. ) I know alotof moms today who teach their kids ‘if someone’s mean to you, you need to stand up and put them in their place’ through violence or harsh words. I was taught if someone is mean to you perhaps their having a bad day. Don’t let it hurt your feelings, but if it does, take a minute to calm down, then ask them why they did what they did. Ask them to apologize and move on. If a kid was a constant problem I would tell my mom or teacher but usually I just let things roll of my back, I knew most kids my age where to immature to handle things in a more appropriate manner… I now have a 17 month old and plan on raising my LO the same way.

    • HowToDaycare says

      Thanks for sharing your experience Olive. It’s sounds like you were wise beyond your years as a child. Your mother is one amazing woman and your child is lucky to have you as a mother. What a difference a strong role model makes in a child’s life.